Acting in their capacity as members of the police commission, members of the New Paltz Town Board released their findings Thursday night, December 20 regarding complaints that officers unlawfully arrested Paul Echols, 23, of Ellenville, on the night of September 9, and thereafter were abusive, used excessive force and caused him injuries up to and including a dislocated jaw and teeth. On all counts, they found no cause for action. Officers conducted themselves professionally, they determined, arrested Echols lawfully and used appropriate force for the situation; further, they found “no evidence” his extensive injuries were caused by the police.
Leading up to this meeting, officials had promised to publicly release a ten-page report prepared by members of the Police Advisory Committee, “and then we talked to our attorney,” said deputy supervisor Dan Torres just before the session was opened. Much of the information in that report falls under state civil service laws that render private details about an individual’s employment history, they learned, and as such should only be released pursuant with freedom-of-information-law requests. At that point, the document is likely to have information redacted, if it is released at all.
In addition to that report, commissioners reviewed evidence including photographs, video and audio recordings and eyewitness accounts, none of which could be released to the public because it would impact Echols’ ability to receive a fair trial. Torres said after the meeting it would have been his preference to release all that material immediately, adding, “If I had been presented just the information that was published online, I would have voted differently. With the ability to view the tape, audio, photos and witness statements I’m confident we made the right choice.”
There were many accounts provided during the public comment session and in online discussions, but Richard Kane’s stands out as he said he was an eyewitness who was “three feet away.” He described Echols as someone who was banned from several local bars for harassment of women, and said that on the night in question he was again engaging in that behavior when a “friend knocked him out.” Others have characterized Echols as being “sucker-punched.” The police responded almost immediately, arresting first a companion of Echols and then the man himself. Public accounts of what happened next are seemingly contradictory; Echols is said to have complied with orders, yet after he was cuffed police report he allegedly spat blood in an officer’s face and was punched several times.
Members of the Concerned Parents of New Paltz, who brought the complaints, see this as an example of institutional racism, or at least unconscious bias. They want to have clearer guidelines regarding how and how much force is applied by officers, and training given in both de-escalation and addressing issues of systemic bias that they see as bringing a racial dimension to this situation. Those views were echoed during the public comment period by many people of color and allies, including a number of college students who made it a point to attend despite the holiday break. They spoke about their encounters with police, about mistrust of law enforcement officers despite a desire to feel protected, about being targeted because of skin color rather than behavior. The message, overall, was that institutional racism is real, even if not every white person has reason to recognize it.
Whether intentional or not, the ideological divide in the room was largely reflected by the seating arrangements. On one side of the packed courthouse wherein the meeting was held were the Echols supporters, on the other those coming out to stand with the officer accused of misdeeds, whom several members of the public identified by name. As commissioners would not confirm the identity of the officer in question, out of a sense of caution, it is not being printed here. Largely, they spoke about his character, his kindness, his professionalism and his family values. Several of them also posited that not every encounter between individuals of different races is about race.
This was the first time a serious complaint was filed since the Advisory Committee was created, and flaws in the process were exposed. Committee members didn’t feel they had access to all the pertinent information, such as policies on the use of force, and also did not feel they had sufficient guidance as to their role. Chair Gowre Parameswaran had been expecting to read the extensive report, but in lieu of that, simply acknowledged a “possibility of excessive force was used.” She later advised she’d been asked to speak no further to reporters about the contents of the report. In addition, red flags about the way the committee is structured have now been raised by the town attorney, who was not asked to weigh in when the group was first created. Supervisor Neil Bettez signaled that changes may have to be made to keep the system in compliance with all state laws.
All told, members of the public expressed their views for close to an hour, and then the commissioners withdrew with their attorney to deliberate. It was nearly two hours later — 8:30 p.m. — when they returned and voted on their findings.
The decision affected each side of the room differently. On one, people appeared satisfied and filed quietly from the building. Across the aisle, many sat stone-faced for several minutes before gathering themselves to leave. Some of that group tarried, because they knew that after the Police Commission meeting was closed the Town Board meeting would begin, and with it another opportunity for public comment.
In a statement he had prepared earlier that day, Concerned Parents of New Paltz member Edgar Rodriguez expressed disappointment, but not surprise, at the ruling. He warned that group members “may pursue a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice that [Echols’] civil rights were violated in his arrest,” and further stated that “we expect the five charges against [Echols] will be dismissed at his local trial on March 4, 2019.” Nevertheless, Rodriguez said that the Concerned Parents of New Paltz hopes this will “start a process to recognize institutional racism in our town” and lead to its elimination. He also invited those who disagreed to attend a conversation he promised to host with the intent of bringing those of differing views together.
While they did not find cause to discipline the officer, police commissioners acknowledged both that institutional racism is a problem in police departments and beyond, and also that any excessive use of force by a police officer is to be taken seriously. Whether that opens the door to more conversations around the ideas of unconscious racism and the relationship between people of color and officers remains to be seen.
They further recommended that police put some seized-asset funds toward purchasing body cameras for all officers.